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10 Japanese New Year Traditions | How I celebrate the Japanese New Year in Japan

The celebrations undertaken to usher in the New Year all around the world are all unique. There are culturally unique New Year`s Eve traditions from around the world, and Japan is no exception. However, In Japan, New Year (正月, shōgatsu) is the most important holiday and biggest celebration of the year.

From January 1st to January 3rd, most businesses are closed for the New Year holiday and families are usually spend time together. Here I have gathered some 13 Japanese New Year traditions you need to know.

1. Nengajo (年賀状) : Japanese New Year's Greeting Cards

明けましておめでとうございます。akemashite omedetō gozaimasu

Nengajo are an important part of New Year's celebration for the Japanese and have been a custom for centuries. To prepare the nengajo, you can either handwrite everything from the greetings to the address or you can leave everything up to a professional printer.

For the design of the nengajo, you can make the pattern representing the animal of the Chinese Zodiac which represents the new year, or you can also display a memorable photo you took in that year.

Preparing your Nengajo

These days Japanese New Year's greeting cards are written on postcards which are known as nenga-hagaki (年賀はがき), or new year’s postcards. Japan Post highly recommends that you post your cards by December 25 to achieve a January 1 delivery.

Nengajo can be sent to friends, relatives, coworkers, boss, acquaintances and such.

You can reply to postcard greetings from January 1st to January 7th. Without physically sending the card, alternatively, you can also send free Nengajo via LINE, which you do not have to prepare the other person's postal address.

Common Nengajo Greetings that mean "Happy New Year" :

  • 明けましておめでとうございます (Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu)

  • 新年おめでとうございます (Shinnen omedeto gozaimasu)

  • 謹賀新年 (Kinga Shinnen)

More Nengajo Phrases :
  • 昨年はお世話になりました (Sakunen wa o-sewa ni narimashita) “Thank you for all your support last year.”

  • 今年もよろしくお願いします (Kotoshi moyoroshiku onegaishimasu) “I look forward to our contact together again this year.”

2. OSOJI ( 大掃除 )

Osoji refers to a "big cleaning" of one's home and usually takes place before the New Year in order to welcome in the New Year for good fortune, and to start the new year on a fresh clean slate.

3. Oshogatsu Kazari : Japanese New Year Decorations

During the O-Shogatsu season, you can find three types of traditional decorations for the Japanese New Year: Kadomatsu, Shimekazari, Kagami-mochi.

The period for celebrating O-shogatsu is called Matsunouchi and starts from December 13th until the January 7th in Kanto and for the Kansai region, it lasts until January 15th. After Matsunouchi ( O-shogatsu celebrating ) is finished, the O-shogatsu Kazari should be taken to a shrine or a temple to be burned, known as dondo-yaki.

Shimekazari ( 注連飾り) : Japanese New Year Wreath

The purpose of shimekazari is to keep away evil spirits. It is made from shimenawa which are sacred prayer ropes. For the Kansai shimekazari, the shimenawa looks like burdock roots ( gobo-time ) where one part of the rope is thicker than the other, along with a bright orange fruit on top which is called daidai (だいだい). The word daidai means "several generations". However, the best known use for daidai is at the top of Kagami-mochi for the Japanese New Year.

The Kanto region does not usually have the gobo-style ropes, instead they have the shimekazari in a loop called Tama-kazari.

Kadomatsu ( 門松 )

Since The Shinto-deity, Toshigami-sama only visits the home when he is invited, the kadomatsu decorations are a sign at an entrance to welcome the deity.

It is best to avoid from setting it up on December 29th and 31st.

The kadomatsu is made of 3 pieces of bamboo cut diagonally, in three different sizes, and pine which is usually placed in front of houses and are set to the left and right of the entrance ways of a building or shop in order to invite the god of the New Year (Toshigamisama) to bless that location for the coming year. However, the origin of Kadomatsu traditions and practices is Chinese.

Kagami-Mochi - Mirror Rice Cakes

Kagami-mochi is made up of two mochi (steamed, pressed and oval-shaped rice cakes) one on top of the other, the smaller one on top and the larger one as a base with a Japanese bitter orange called daidai on top and some leaves.

4. Toshikoshi Soba (Japanese New Year’s Eve Soba Noodle Soup) 年越しそば

Eating soba noodle soup on New Year's Eve represents good fortune and prosperity which has become one of the most enduring traditions celebrated in Japan. Soba is often served in a hot dashi broth and garnished with only finely chopped green onions and for the topping, you can add Kamaboko ( fish cakes ) and tempura or anything you'd like.

Soba noodles or also known in English as buckwheat noodles are a part of traditional Japanese cooking. Soba was first eaten in noodle form in Japan around 400 years ago ; However, soba is said to have originated in China and brought to Japan near the end of the Jomon Period.

5. Otoshidama : New Year's Money For School-Aged Children

Starting from January 1st to January 3rd, in Japan, children receive little envelopes containing money, or otoshidama from their parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and so forth. Only cash is used for otoshidama, so the minimum amount the children receive is 1,000 Yen.

6. Osechi-Ryori (Japanese New Year’s Food) おせち料理

Osechi-ryori is the traditional food enjoyed on New Year’s day in Japan which comes in an assortment of colorful dishes which are all packed together in "Jubako", which is a special box that resembles bento boxes. Osechi-ryori includes a variety of dishes representing wishes for good fortune for the New Year. For example, Kuromame ( sweetened black soybean), represents contributing to a healthy New Year ahead.

7. OZONI Japanese New Year Mochi Soup (お雑煮)

Ozoni is a traditional Japanese New Year breakfast consisting of a broth or soup with mochi (rice cakes) which wishes for good health in the upcoming year. There are various styles of Ozoni based on different parts of Japan. Unlike white miso-based with kombu Ozoni enjoyed in western Japan (Kansai, Shikoku, and Kyushu regions), simple dashi-based soup is the common Ozoni style in the Kanto region of Japan.

8. Hatsumode : First Visiting to a Shrine or Temple in the New Year

Hatsumode is visiting a shrine or temple throughout the New Year holidays to pray for good fortune for the coming year. To avoid the large crowds at popular shrines or temples, some people do their Hatsumode anytime between January 1st to January 3rd or from January 1st until January 7th.

During Hatsumode, people usually give thanks and gratitude for the last year and ask for blessing and good fortune for the coming year.

After you finished visiting the temple or shrine, you can get an omikugi which is a fortune-telling paper that will tell you your fortune for the new year. You can also purchase good luck charms or an omamori, which is a Japanese amulet, that is seen as a good luck charm with prayers written on paper and sealed inside.

Also during Hatsumode, you have the chance to return the fukusasa ( branches of leafy bamboo decorated with lucky trinkets and ornaments ), and Hamaya ( arrow ).

9. FUKUSASA : Good Luck Fortune Decorated Bamboo Branches

Fukusasa is another good luck Japanese tradition which is essentially made from branches of leafy bamboo decorated with lucky trinkets and ornaments made by Miko ( shrine maidens ). After one year, return it to the same shrine and get a new one.

The Fukusasa is completed by tying up the nine Fukuemas that you received at the nine shrines and temples.

10. Hamaya ( 破魔矢 ) : Decorative Good Luck Arrow

Hamaya ( 破魔矢 ) which means destroy-demon-arrow, is a lucky arrow charm that is sold at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples as a Japanese New Year's lucky charm for good fortune. Hamaya itself literally means "arrow used to drive off evil"

On New Year's day, people bring Hamaya home to worship as a guardian deity of the house. There is also a custom in which relatives and family friends give Hamaya to a newborn baby at the baby's first annual celebration. They are also used to mark the ridgepole-raising ceremony of a newly built house. The Hamaya is displayed on the altar, in the tokonoma (alcove), at the entrance, or in the living room. The Hamaya is a good-luck charm for one year only, and it should be returned to the shrine or temple that gave it to you the following year.

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